After Robert Pinsky
When our mothers had no water for themselves
we drank. When we had no bed, we mapped a plot
in the dirt. We had to lie in the dirt of your country.
When we had no money we worked.
When we had no license we walked.
When we had no strength our mind kept walking.
When we had no passport our blood
was our passport. When there was no train
we hauled the weight of our own body.
When we had no companion we remembered
God is our companion. When we had no
direction our family was our compass.
When we had no faith luck
was our faith. When we have finished
death will be our luck.
Undocumented is our status, resistance
is our cause. Because we cannot sleep
we dream with open eyes.
Resist, Change, Survive: Learning to Sing
“Warrior Song” began with my admiration for Robert Pinsky’s work. I first encountered “Samurai Song” in an anthology of contemporary American poetry in my first undergraduate workshop. This is a poem, I thought.
Here’s what I didn’t think: In an anthology of 136 contemporary poets, there are more white writers named Robert (7) than there are Latinx poets (5) in the whole anthology. Another thought I didn’t have: Why is a white American man writing about someone else’s culture as if it were his own? The word audacity had not yet entered my vocabulary, much less appropriation.
While my relationship to “Samurai Song” has grown complex, I want to acknowledge that my poem would not exist without Pinsky’s. “Warrior Song” engages “Samurai Song” in conversation, and that dialogue is now part of our poems. I can’t change the aspects of “Samurai Song” that are othering, and I can’t change that I once had only praise for this poem. Reading it now, it still resonates. It still reaches at some truth. My admiration wrestles with my politics.
From this struggle, I asked myself what my version of that truth would look like. I wanted to see “Samurai Song” written from within a culture rather than about a culture; I wanted to write for a Latinx audience. More simply, I wanted to write something my mother could read.
In Pinsky’s poem, Samurai means temples, training, mystery, prayer, austerity, priests. While not offensive in the same way as the work of John Smelcer or Michael Derrick Hudson (aka “Yi-Fen Chou”), the field of images in “Samurai Song” still relies, at least in part, on conjuring stereotypes of Asian culture in the white imagination.
Pinksy wrote “Samurai Song” in a time with less understanding of cultural respect, and if one of his contemporaries wrote a similar poem after studying native Mexican cultures, they might have titled it “Warrior Song.” To a person only familiar with indigenous people as stereotypes and sports mascots, warrior might mean: savages, feathers, pelts, temples, war clubs, arrows, human sacrifices.
But what does warrior really mean? Warrior in Spanish is guerrero. Guerrero could refer to a warrior as depicted in the Aztec codices—holding a sword and shield, dressed in the skin of a jaguar, the feathers of an eagle. It is tempting to romanticize the past. But indigenous Mexican people and their descendants are not taxidermied in a codex. We continue to exist, often as undocumented immigrants in the US So what shape does our courage take now?
My mother was born in Guerrero, named for Vicente Guerrero, a general in the War of Independence and Mexico’s first Afro-Mestizo president. He ended slavery in Mexico (thirty-six years before the US) and thwarted a reconquest by Spain. He was definitely a guerrero.
I was raised among guerreros: people risking their lives crossing, going to work not knowing if they would return, working double shifts and coming home only to sleep, working dangerous jobs no one else wanted, enlisting in the Marines, registering as DREAMers.
In writing “Warrior Song,” I worried about theft—both plagiarism and appropriation. Was my poem too similar to Pinsky’s? I credit Pinsky. Is it OK for me to write about the undocumented experience? I don’t know. My mother was once undocumented, but I grew up with some of the privileges of a US citizen. This is one of the reasons it felt inappropriate to use I in “Warrior Song.”
The first drafts of “Warrior Song” were in first person singular because I was following “Samurai Song’s” example. Also because the self-reliance of Pinsky’s speaker is seductive—I wanted the pull-yourself-up-from-your-bootstraps myth. But when I would read the poem out loud, something felt off: I was self-aggrandizing, I was appropriative, I was lonely. Yes, I was speaking from my experience, but so were my parents, brothers, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, neighbors—they all rose up. Nothing I have done has been on my own. Our communities—we—have been resisting together. And we will continue to do more than survive.
Houston, TX / Auburn, NY. Spring 2017.